If you’ve heard all the hype, read the Entertainment Weekly exceedingly glowing review, or listened to critics call the new album by the Barenaked Ladies a “pure pop gem,” you might already be sick of hearing about it. In fact, it’s entirely possible that you already want to take it down a peg considering the media hoopla swirling around the disc. What Kid A‘s press putsch is to rock, Maroon‘s is to pop.
It’s what Clarke Cooper of the journal Hermenaut calls “debasement by acclaim.” And maybe since you’ve heard the lead single, “Pinch Me,” on the radio and decided it’s a lightweight follow-up to BNL’s smash-hit single “One Week,” you feel justified for feeling that way. It’s an easy argument to make. Any time a band gets a VH1 weekend named after them, including a new installment of Behind the Music, it seems easier to rail against corporate music than accept that there may be some truth to the praise.
So before you write off a band that’s made their inroads into commercial success as a catchy novelty act, before you reject Maroon as a marketing tool, give the disc an honest listen. Ignore the Jason Priestly documentary film. Ignore whatever ambivalence might have built up by forced repeated listenings of “One Week” during the summer of 1998. Even ignore the Barenaked Ladies you may know from “If I Had $1000000” and “Brian Wilson.” Maroon will stand on its own as a trip through the encyclopedia of pop music.
This is as close to a perfect pop album as we might get this year. Too long has pop suffered under the weight of boy and girl bands, pop-punk, and an insurgence of angry metal-rap hybrids. Maroon can almost be praised for simply existing in a musical arena that seemingly has little patience for such acts of brazen pop sincerity. This isn’t to say that tons of pop bands aren’t laboring unrecognized by the commercial mainstream at this very moment, but the fact that the Barenaked Ladies have broken in at all says something about the tenacity of these crazy Canadians.
If you’re a fan of BNL from way back, maybe that offends you. If you have seen any of the recent media coverage of the band, and spent money on the documentary Barenaked in America as a true fan, then you probably feel a bit under-appreciated for all your loving support over the last eight years. There is a definite sense that only a #1 song on the Billboard Top 100 counts for anything anymore. “One Week” is hailed as BNL’s breakthrough in the US (their debut album Gordon went to #1 on the Canadian charts back in 1992 and earned them the 1993 Group of the Year Juno Award), even though songs like “The Old Apartment,” “Brian Wilson,” “Shoebox,” and the perennial favorite “$1000000” gave the Ladies plenty of airtime on US radio and sold a fair number of albums stateside. Because 1998’s Stunt was such a runaway success, becoming a hit with the Total Request Live crowd seems to have eclipsed BNL’s old school fan base, much to the discredit of the millions of people who’ve supported the band for years. Thankfully, when the Barenaked Ladies play live it is that original fan base, built up over years of touring and earning well-deserved notoriety for their stage antics, that the band plays to. At least now that they’re an arena act they have less to worry about in the way of flying boxes of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese dinners.
What, you’re probably asking, does any of this have to do with Maroon? Plenty. BNL’s fifth album of all-new material will probably come as a bit of a surprise to the old fans of the band as well as those converted by Stunt‘s loveable power. If you’ve been following the band for a while, then you know that a part of what generates an easy affection for BNL is their ability to sing about a variety of subjects, sometimes topics that are downright maudlin, with a shiny grin and a catchy tempo. They are geek pop at its finest because they manage to be serious, fun, and funny all in the same breath. That capacity hasn’t diminished on Maroon, but the level of musicianship has improved so much since the days when Steven and Ed used to ad lib songs on stage that their old acoustic jangle-pop seems almost adolescent. Comparisons to every great pop act ever will flourish upon listening, and the power of Maroon is in the ability for at least one song to remind you of your favorite pop band of all time, be it the Beatles, the Beach Boys, XTC, or [insert favorite band here].
You can either praise a band with comparisons or condemn a band with comparisons, and to make myself clear, I’ll go on record as saying that for all the different references that spring forth out of Maroon (and will spring out of this review), it is still most definitely a Barenaked Ladies album. BNL has never shied away from making their influences and pop heroes known through their music. Duh…“Brian Wilson!” But a musical leap forward from a typically good to a phenomenally great album can be a shift that even jolts die-hard fans out of their usual modes of thinking. In this regard, I was immediately reminded of Ben Folds Five. Much like Stunt for BNL, Whatever and Ever Amen was a really good album that made Ben Fold Five stand out as quirky and impressive pop musicians. But then along comes 1999’s The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Mesner and the listener is blown away by the scope and grandeur as well as the obvious jump from previous works. Such is Maroon.
Some critics who have not showered praise on Maroon have complained that the first three tracks on the album sound like new BNL material and then the album begins sliding into heavier and heavier territory. In some respects this is true. “Too Little Too Late,” “Never Do Anything,” and “Pinch Me” are the Ladies drawing their fans back into their fold. Like XTC’s recent “Stupidly Happy,” “Too Little Too Late” is built on a simple riff and bubbles up in the usual effervescent BNL mode. “Never Do Anything” is dripping in the vocal style that Stephen Page has made a career out of and seems to be a straightforward tune, but then, as the Ladies do so well, the bridge breaks out into a funk jam that gives the song real depth. When Ed Robertson takes the vocal helm on “Pinch Me,” the acoustic/electric combo and Robertson’s rap styles fill the somber song with a buoyant energy that is distinctly Barenaked Ladies.
“Go Home” begins the journey into pop history that is the rest of Maroon. Strains of Jellyfish, the Beautiful South, and the Housemartins (whose “Happy Hour” the Ladies brilliantly sampled in the past on “Hello City”) seep through your speakers. Still playing in the jangle-pop arena, “Falling for the First Time” is carried by Kevin Hearn’s great piano and sounds like an old familiar pop anthem. “Conventioneers,” then, is the first major musical change of pace. A simple and elegantly soft tune straight out of the ‘70s (I couldn’t help but think of “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)”), it deals with the attraction of two co-workers and the embarrassing fallout of emotions after they’ve consummated their flirtations. It may also be the most compelling combination of wah-wah pedal and wah-wah shaker written in the last 20 years.
Perhaps paying homage to one of the great popsters of all time, “Sell, Sell, Sell” could have been lifted straight out of an Elvis Costello album. As story songs go, it’s amusing in a way that few acts other than the Barenaked Ladies can manage. The carnivalesque soundscape almost puts the song in a They Might Be Giants realm, but Page’s voice anchors the song before it can float away. “The Humor of the Situation” is almost like a Stunt-era BNL song inserted to remind the listener who created the album they’re listening to. In some ways it’s reminiscent of “It’s All Been Done.” But this return to older formula is temporary, because next in line is “Baby Seat,” a song that Page co-wrote with Stephen Duffy. Bridging the gap between classic rock and the Lightning Seeds, with a falsetto bridge evoking ‘80s new wave, it’s probably one of the most far-ranging songs on the album.
The quiet solemnity of “Off the Hook” acts as a transition to the final two songs. “Helicopters” and “Tonight is the Night I Fell Asleep at the Wheel” are a study in where BNL have come from and arrived in eight years as a commercial act. “Helicopters” begins with a verse as grim as a Morrissey tune, and is crooned by Page in a similar fashion to Mozza, but the song quickly becomes a litany of the frustrations of the public life and selling creative products to the masses. The song also spawns one of the innumerable classic BNL lines: “A world that loves its irony must hate the protest singer.” At nearly 10 minutes (including the “hidden” track), the album closer, “Tonight is the Night I Fell Asleep at the Wheel” is the most ambitious song on Maroon. With a drum march and a calliope tune, the song chronicles a narrator who has just died in a car accident, complete with graphic imagery. Although it’s not clear whether its meant as a hidden track or an extension of “Tonight is the Night…” the song crescendos and then picks back up again with an almost sappy tune whose uplifting chorus sings, “Inside ourselves is a hidden sun that burns and burns, and never does any harm to anyone.” After an album of somber lyrics, the only thing that makes this seemingly cheesy sentiment work is that it allows Maroon to end on a hopeful note. And again, it compares to Ben Folds Five’s album closer “Lullabye” on Reinhold Mesner.
A part of what makes Maroon compelling after repeated listening is that it seems to pull the listener in two separate directions. Kevin Hearn’s bout with cancer and near death experience certainly impacted the lyrical content of BNL’s songs. A lot of the dark thoughts that permeate Maroon can likely be traced to dealing with the possibility of losing an integral member of the band, as well as the emotional time and effort that BNL have put into their careers to find success. But, as Maroon producer Don Was notes, the fact that they can make the album musically alive and upbeat while dealing with these issues is brilliant. And musically the album is probably the finest the band has ever put together. I’m certain that much credit is due to Was and engineer Jim Scott for helping draw out the talent of a band who has grown tremendously, but the potential for an album like Maroon can be seen in the Barenaked Ladies as far back as Gordon.
Now that the members of the Barenaked Ladies probably do have a million dollars, it will be interesting to see if success propels them to greater heights. Considering that “One Week” is their commercial high, the quality and craftsmanship of Maroon indicates that the band certainly has something worth putting their money into once they have it. It’s too early to say whether Maroon will compare in terms of sales, and in all honesty the mass musical audience has never shown a huge affinity for intelligent pop, but this is an album that may mark one of the top highlights of an already illustrious career.
// Notes from the Road
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